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Comments about the soundtrack for The Thin Red Line (Hans Zimmer)

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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review #1
• Posted by: Todd China
• Date: Sunday, May 3, 2009, at 7:11 a.m.
• IP Address: donated.filmtracks.com

(The following donated review by Todd China was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in May, 2009)


The Thin Red Line: (Hans Zimmer) I was alone among my friends when, emerging from a movie theater in January 1999, I offered my opinion that The Thin Red Line was actually a good movie. My friends told me that I had a "questionable" taste in movies. Having had the chance to re-watch The Thin Red Line recently, I still hold to my original assessment of this film. Although John Travolta and George Clooney are terrible and the twenty-minute long lull period two hours into the film is really boring, there are moments when Terrence Malick achieves heights of movie magic. His film is not a realistic portrayal of World War II but a poetic exploration of the meaning of human conflict. Malick's choice of composer proved to be truly inspired because the results are nothing short of brilliant.

The score for The Thin Red Line simply cannot be compared with John Williams' work for Saving Private Ryan. Saving Private Ryan is a quiet, reflective, Americana score that resonates with nobility, honor, and sacrifice. The Thin Red Line is a bleak, moody, brooding score that reflects the darkness of the human soul and the primal quality of combat. Like the film it accompanies, there is no sense of purpose, and the score comes to an end without any real attempt at emotional resolution. The score is very anti-heroic, instilling a sense of dread and fear. For example, when Colonel Tall demands over the sound power phone that Captain Staros take Hill 210, we hear the menacing low string motif heard at the end of "The Coral Atoll." Saving Private Ryan lacks music for the combat scenes, but The Thin Red Line thrives on the use of underscore for its combat sequences.

The music sets the tone from the very beginning of the film, with a low, uncomfortable rumbling followed by a sustained organ chord. It is a musical descent into darkness. Much of the music represented on the album consists of subdued, somewhat repetitive themes that accompany scenes in which the characters ponder the meaning of life or experience brief flashbacks. A very affecting example of this kind of scoring occurs in "The Lagoon," following the taiko drums and voices (which never appear in the film, like much of the music on the album). Private Jon Bell is having the first of many flashbacks of his wife. The combination of the brooding strings, the image of the soldiers scrambling to get above deck, the klaxons, and Bell's voice-over is truly spellbinding. In "Beam," John Powell composes a decent piece of music that both fits in seamlessly with Zimmer's music while conveying the loneliness and emotional detachment of Bell as he has more flashbacks of his wife while on a life-threatening scouting expedition.

Zimmer's music melds wonderfully with Malick's images in the cue "Journey to the Line," easily the best cue in the score, and one of the best pieces of music composed in 1998. The scene the cue supposedly accompanies, the journey to the line, actually contains a more percussive version, and the music fades out before really going anywhere. The cue on the album is much closer to that used for a scene that occurs at the 2 hour mark, involving a Japanese bivouac. "Journey to the Line" begins with a minimalist clicking sequence in the percussion and high woodwinds, and the music slowly builds, starting from the string bass and progressing through the upper strings, to a powerful release by the French horns. The music is perfect for a scene of such blood lust and hints at a sense of great tragedy.

The rest of the score is also very good, although tracks 6, 7, 8, and 11 never appear in the film. "Air," "Stone in My Heart," and "The Village" all contain the melancholy motifs heard elsewhere on the soundtrack, but in varied permutations. "The Village," for instance, is distinguished by a lyrical opening passage performed by the bassoon. Hans Zimmer actually composed about four hours of music for the film, presumably leaving Terrence Malick to cut and paste whatever he wanted onto the soundtrack. In some cases, the score in the context of the film is not very scene specific and could have been used for any number of scenes. In other cases, such as "Journey to the Line," the music was clearly composed with the particular scene in mind. Was "The Village" meant to accompany the first sequence, in which Private Witt and his buddy are AWOL and hanging out with native villagers? How would the scene have played with this music, instead of the instrumental version of the Melanesian hymn (that so many people seem to like) that was used instead? What did the rest of Hans Zimmer's unused score sound like? If tracks 6, 7, and 8 are any indication, the answer would be "pretty darn good." I would have been interested in seeing a follow-up release with more of Zimmer's unused music. Instead, all we got was more Melanesian chants, something that I personally have zero interest in as a film score enthusiast.

This brings up another point: I really dislike the presence of the Melanesian chants in the soundtrack. The voices in "God U Takem Laef Blong Mi" are annoying, and the repetitive theme leaves little impression. The scenes with villagers really have no business being in the movie at all; anyone who has read James Jones' novel knows that there is hardly any mention of natives. Francesco Lupica's contribution to the album is equally annoying, noisy, and pointless. As far as I'm concerned, the album ends with track 9. In addition, if Hans Zimmer's score has any fault at all, it is the fact that the score, like the film, tends to ramble aimlessly. As underscore, this is okay, but as a listening experience, it falls a little short of the five star rating. All in all, I love The Thin Red Line. I suggest listening to it while reading the James Jones novel --you will be rewarded. In the past, I've had a generally negative opinion of Hans Zimmer, but The Thin Red Line is a wonderful achievement. It is musical poetry. ****






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